Varnishing an Oil Painting: How-To and Review

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Perhaps the single most important step in the oil painting process, and no, I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating one bit.

I tend to get really excited about some random things. Like when my husband surprised me with a new Dyson on Black Friday 2018. I went on about that for weeks. I just wanted to tell everyone about how many canisters I filled just on the first go around the house. It was life-changing. Or when I discovered you can mail order dog food. Did you know you can mail order dog food!? And set a delivery schedule? That was pretty big. Or when we bought a food dehydrator and made our own raisins from grapes. That was really, really cool.

So anyway, usually when I have one of these discoveries I like to tell anyone who will listen. Varnishing my oil paintings is now one of those things. I feel like I can’t stop talking about it because it has made me so inexplicably happy. Everyone has been really polite about me going on about it, but the non-painters inundated with my excitement can only appreciate this so much. This topic is definitely more suited to visitors of my art blog. ☺️

Teelo says, Mom, it’s time to varnish your paintings!

To all the artists reading this: Varnishing is a big deal. Those of you in the know are thinking, well duh. I have always varnished my acrylic paintings, most recently with TriArt gloss varnish. However, my experience using Gamblin Gamvar Gloss Picture Varnish this week is what has left me feeling so impressed. First of all, you should varnish your acrylic and oil paintings to give them a protective surface (watercolorists – obviously varnish will ruin your work, just stick with glass framing). While I appreciate this protective layer, the majority of my happiness is because varnishing has made my oil paintings look so much better.

I finished three oil paintings from November to end of December 2018 (This is a Cat, Big Beesa, and Downtown Brown) and those are the paintings that I varnished for the first time this week. Like I said, I’ve been waiting for this day forever.

A bit of a preamble: I was really hesitant to start painting with oil paints in the first place, but now that I’ve made the transition – honestly I don’t know why I put it off for so long. Oh my goodness if you’re considering it – just switch. Like right now. My style of painting improved by leaps and bounds when I committed to acrylic painting on canvas (instead of forcing watercolours on myself, which is still hit and miss to this day) but I just could not stand the drying time. There is nothing worse than going back to work on a section with one more perfecting brushstroke and you hit dry paint and your brush skids across the sticky canvas. I just hate it. And I paint in fairly thin layers so it just happened all the time. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve been loving the leap to oil painting because I still feel like it retains everything I enjoy about acrylic paint but with even more benefits – colours blend so beautifully, the canvas is saturated in colour, and I have been achieving a level of realism and luminosity beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.

However. And this is a big however. One thing that I noticed with the oils almost right away was that, while the painting may have looked amazing and perfect right at the end of a painting session (when all the paint was still wet and shiny and freshly applied), a few days later with a bit of drying – some of the paint seemed uneven. Some areas were still glossy, but some colours that had so much depth when first applied were now matte and dull and uneven too. At first I thought, oh when it’s totally dry it will even out. Not so. For the paintings This is a Cat and Big Beesa, the dark backgrounds were really dramatic when first applied but dried really patchy. No amount of layering fixed this (I tried, and just wasted paint for no reason). It really took away from both paintings.

The streakiness is really evident here in this process pic from Downtown Brown. Those black areas should be totally black:

After Googling this issue (thank you Google!) I learned that this is a fairly common issue for oil painting. This “sunken in” appearance is especially problematic for darker colours where it is more obvious. As for the reason – as usual it seems like a number of reasons are suggested – painting too thin, mixing too many colours, too much solvent. One big issue that faces all oil painters is that oil may not be absorbed from paints uniformly by your painted surface as the paints dry. Combine that with the fact that different oil colours differ in terms of oil content to begin with and you have all the makings for uneven drying and overall appearance in your final painting.

The fix

The good news is, there is a solution. The fix for this variation in paint appearance is varnishing (in addition to bestowing all those wonderful protective qualities). I have really, really been looking forward to this final step because I’ve read so much about how this really adds so much to your final painting. I love colour and contrast and I was so disappointed to see that some colours significantly dulled with drying.

I expected the varnish step to even out the surface and that the glossy finish would return and saturate my colours and really make them pop. Gamblin advertises that their Picture Varnish will unify the surface of your painting.

Gamblin is a great company and really committed to artist education. If you have a question and contact them they WILL get back to you with a personalized email. For example, Dave from Gamblin sent me a lovely email response to my question about using graphite for your underdrawing for an oil painting (I had concerns). Anyway, they produced a really handy post about varnishing that covers everything you need to know. I followed it exactly with excellent results.

Gamblin recommends waiting until your painting is touch-dry to varnish. This may be a few weeks or a few months. I paint in pretty thin layers so after a week or so all of my paintings are just about touch dry. I thought I would be extra good and I gave all of my paintings at least a month to dry. I also figured a varnish assembly-line would make the best use of my time.

Step 1: Assemble your tools

Not much to assemble. I had my varnish bottle from which I poured a small quantity into a flat container (old Tupperware repurposed for the art room). I cleared off my flat art room table to place each painting during the varnishing. It’s best to work on a flat surface so the varnish goes on evenly and isn’t drawn downwards by gravity.

I purchased this 2″ Royal and Langnickel Jumbo flatbrush just for varnishing. Soft but firm synthetic bristles and well constructed (no bristles falling out during the actual varnishing and ruining the painting).

Loving this new varnish brush.

If you have a dedicated varnish brush, you don’t need to clean your brush after using Gamvar. You can just let it dry and put it away until your next varnishing party.

Step 2: Varnish!

I laid each painting flat on my big table in the art room. Using my large brush, I dipped it into a flat container holding some Gamvar. I tapped off the brush and then starting at the top of each painting I swept it in long even strokes across the canvas. I worked my way down being careful to lay the varnish down in a thin layer picking up any excess as I go. You want to watch out for any areas where it may pool, especially on amore textured painting surface. The Gamvar needs to be applied very thinly or it will always remain tacky. It dries solely by solvent evaporation and if done correctly will be dry to the touch in a couple days (I checked, mine were dry to the touch in a couple days!). I did ignore the unsolicited advice of a well-meaning sales lady at Michael’s who I chatted with on a recent canvas buying expedition. She advised to rub the varnish in with a cloth. I have no idea how this would be superior but I implore you, do not do this. It seems more likely to ruin your painting. For my 24 x 30″ Big Beesa I dipped my brush into the varnish twice for the entire thing. That’s it.

Here’s a pic of the varnish process halfway thru. The Gamvar immediately saturated the painting, You can see a distinct line about halfway down. The top half is varnished, the bottom half not varnished. The difference is really striking in this photo and that richness was retained when the varnish dried.

Another compare and contrast. Varnish applied on the left side of painting, the red, especially the darkest areas are noticeably more vibrant. The right side is awaiting varnish. It is more dull and muted.

Step 3: Drying

Let your varnished painting(s) dry for a few days in a safe pet-free zone. They should be totally dry to the touch if done properly.

Before and After

All of these pics are totally un-retouched to try to show you the true before and afters.

This is a Cat

You can see the top-down vertical steaks in the black background and the variation in light and dark black throughout even though black was used straight from the tube. I applied two layers of black to the background to try to fix this but it dried the same every time. In the after, you can see that the background is totally uniform and this effect is even more striking in person. All of the colours look more saturated.

Big Beesa

I felt that the dark background was even more problematic in this painting. Again I applied multiple layers of paint in the background to no avail. In the after image, again the paint is totally uniform and all of the colours have been restored to their straight-from-the-tube lustre.

Downtown Brown

This painting was so streaky in the before image. Again the darker colours are a bigger problem but you can see in the varnished image that everything gains a greater intensity and the steaks are lost.

Final Verdict

I put so much love and care into all of my paintings that it just makes sense to kind of finish them up and tie everything into a neat package with a final varnish (like the ribbon on a present). The same goes for painting the edges of my canvas and signing my work. It’s the little things that can elevate a painting so much. In terms of the varnish step, the difference is subtle but it is also everything. Not only will you protect your artistic investment, you’re allowing it to reach its full potential.

I’m sorry this turned into a bit of a review of Gamvar varnish but I just can’t get over it. I received it for Christmas from my husband and it’s now one of my favourite presents (the spiky shoes and Neewer lights were the front runners up until now ;)). I think the Gamvar Picture Varnish is an absolutely excellent product. It’s always hard to photograph paintings, especially glossy ones, but in person the paintings have a rich, saturated, unified appearance. A little Gamvar goes an extremely long way. I have a 500ml container and I think it will last me for years of oil painting varnishing. And yes, in case you were wondering (I know I was!) you can use Gamvar Picture Varnish on oil and acrylic paintings.

I hope these impressions will help any of you starting out or on the fence about which product to varnish with. If you have any questions please feel free to write to me in the comments below.

Thank you for reading everyone. Happy varnishing!

3 Replies to “Varnishing an Oil Painting: How-To and Review”

  1. Varnish is awesome! I seriously don’t understand artists that refuse to use it. I spent a few months figuring out how to photograph super glossy dark paintings and figured out that the solution to glare is to shine a light on the painting at a 45 degree angle. I use a whole photography setup with softboxes and daylight bulbs, but I’ve had luck with just angling the painting at a 45 degree​ angle to a window. It’s definitely worth experimenting with.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Amber, this is great advice – thank you, I will try it for my next photo! Yes I’ve read about building light-boxes etc and it’s been on my mind lately because I was considering making some prints of my work? But I have to be able to take a good photo first. And yes, I agree varnish is so awesome. ☺️ ps I’ve been following your painting challenge – loving your food paintings ☺️

      Like

      1. Good photos are a must even if you never make prints. I’ve sold a bunch of paintings and the photos I took are all I have left of them. Thank you! 🙂 It has been a fun challenge.

        Liked by 1 person

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